Monday, September 17, 2012
Remembering an Icon
Today is his 134th birth anniversary. Periyar is an example of one man’s vision and dream that could bring about a radical change in society. He was a revolutionary leader, great humanist and iconoclast produced by Tamil Nadu. Periyar’s original name was E.V. Ramasami Naicker. He dropped his surname "Naicker" because it indicates caste, and he was very strongly opposed to the caste-system.
His admirers bestowed the title "Periyar" on him. (In Tamil the word "Periyar" means "the great one''.) He is also referred to as “Thanthai Periyar” (“great leader” or “great father”).
In his early boyhood, he was exposed to a rigid orthodox way of life strictly governed by traditional prescriptions and scrupulously attached to conventional ritual-ridden activities.
Periyar, recalling his boyhood remarked that “the Hindu orthodoxy practiced by his ancestors and the theological discourses perennially conducted in his house turned him to be an agnostic.” Incidents of caste discriminatory and derogatory treatment experienced by him as a schoolchild seem to have made a lasting impression to his sense of self-respect so as to drive him to be a determined speaker for an egalitarian society.
At the age of nineteen, he married Nagammai who was only thirteen. In 1904, i.e., six years after his marriage and at the age of 25, Periyar left his home without informing anyone and went to Varanasi (Benares).
It seems there were increasing clashes between Periyar and the orthodox ways of his family. Periyar regarded “thali” (a necklace worn by married Hindu women in some parts of India) as a symbol of slavery. Periyar's removal of the "thali" of his wife created a furor in his family. Probably this led to Periyar’s unannounced exit.
He always pictured Varanasi as a holy place, where anybody could go and stay. However, when he went there, he saw that only the Brahmins were taken cared for while non-Brahmins were not allowed to stay in the inn. Being a non-Brahmin E. V. R Periyar was not given any food, even though at that time the temple was offering food for people coming from all over the world. Because of his hunger, he had to fill his stomach from the leftovers.
The decades of 20s and 30s saw major upheavals in the socio-political milieu of India as a whole and particularly south India. Of all the social reform movements in Tamil Nadu, the one movement which was non-religious and secular in its approach to social problems and brought about the maximum change was the Self-Respect Movement (Suya Mariyadai Iyakkam) started by Periyar.
This movement was quite strong and even militant in its efforts to achieve social equality. It was described from the beginning as “dedicated to the goal of giving non-Brahmins a sense of pride based on their Dravidian past.”
The political philosophy of Periyar is human respectability with an emphasis on economic and social equality, which must be primarily based on rational thinking.
Periyar was an atheist and rationalist who questioned the hierarchies of domination and suppression created and sanctioned by Hindu religion. Hence he was strongly anti-religion and anti-caste. Periyar was uncompromisingly opposed to Brahminism. Eradication of caste-system including untouchability was the most important aim of the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar worked for a casteless society based on the value of equality. He believed that this could be achieved only by the abolition of Brahminism.
In his "Manu - A Code of Injustice to Non-Brahmins", Periyar has severely condemned Manu's code as expounded in the Manu dharmashastra or the Manusmriti. According to him, Manu's code is only a weapon in the hands of the "high-caste Brahmins". It enables Brahmins to call themselves high and superior, and to lead a comfortable life at the cost of others.
The non-brahmins (Shudras), on the other hand, have been deprived of their self-respect and decency, and have been reduced to the status of perpetual slaves. Manu's code, as Periyar sees it, is an instrument for Brahmin dominance and monopoly over the society.
Religion and social issues are closely linked. Ritual impurity leading to untouchability means socio-economic degradation, for lower caste and ritual purity leads to social supremacy for the upper caste.
Champion of Women’s Rights
Periyar was a champion of women's rights and strongly in favour of women’s equality. He saw that oppression of women was deep rooted in our society. The orthodox people justified their attitude towards women saying that they followed Manu dharma. Periyar said, “Any code that advised men to treat their women folk worse than animals is a barbarous code and can be respected only by barbarians.”
He questioned the whole concept of chastity as it was (and continues to be) applied selectively to women only. He felt that character was essential for both man as well as woman. Hence he said, speaking of chastity only with reference to women degraded not merely women but men also.
In several Self-Respect Conferences, which he organized in Tamil Nadu, Periyar advocated women’s equality with men, and equal property and succession rights for women. Among other things, he encouraged and supported inter-caste marriages and widow-remarriages.
Periyar popularized Self-Respect Marriages based on mutual consent and rationalism that was conducted without any Brahmin priest or religious ritual.
Periyar objected to terms like “giving of a maid” and “given in marriage”. They are Sanskrit concepts and come from the brahminical tradition of treating women as objects. He wanted them to be substituted by Vazhakai Tunai, a word for marriage taken from the Tirukkural, which means Life-Mate.
Such self-respect marriages can be successfully undertaken in an atmosphere where the status of women is on par with men. He believed that women’s liberation also depends upon relieving them from the age-old traditions and other irrational chains of bondage and exploitation.
According to Periyar, kindness, desire, love, lust, friendship, attraction and distaste of sex, etc., are private feelings of human beings. These should not be discussed, determined or imposed by any third person. Every one must have the freedom to settle these issues based on his or her taste, attitude and satisfaction. It is unnecessary and uncalled-for anybody to interfere into the private affairs of others.
Periyar - a firm Marxist
Even today, most Periyarists address each other as ‘Thozhar’ without realizing its true meaning. ‘Thozhar’ means ‘Comrade’ and conveys a sense of equality cutting across hierarchies and barriers of religion, caste, gender etc.
Periyar visited the USSR and was greatly impressed by the egalitarian society based on dialectical materialist principles that he saw there. He envisioned a similar kind of classless and casteless society for the whole of Dravida Nadu where people would free themselves from social, political and economic inequalities and create a just and egalitarian social order.
“Where there is despair, Periyar instilled hope,
Where there was darkness, he shed light,
Where there was ignorance, he spread knowledge,
Where there was fear, he gave courage.”
For more online resources on Periyar:
Images courtesy - Internet